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Congress's Apology for Slavery Is a Good ThingIt's Just Not Enough

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Jul 31, 2008

Editor's Note: The House vote to apologize for the horror of slavery, albeit important, is nothing to really laud since many states have already done it. The apology notwithstanding, America has yet to shake its legacy of slavery, writes Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author and political analyst. His new book is "How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back."

The House of Representative's vote to apologize for the horror of slavery was an easy call. Several states have done their mea culpas on slavery. The resolutions the states and Congress passed were mild, innocuous, and ultimately toothless. In truth that's all they were supposed to be. But the House resolution was still important. It was tacit acknowledgement of something that the slavery apology opponents vehemently deny and that is that slavery was not just the evil doings of greedy Southern planters.

The U.S. government encoded slavery in the Constitution and protected and nourished it for a century. Traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers, and landowners made billions off of it. Their ill-gotten profits fueled America's industrial and agricultural might. For decades after slavery's end, white trade unions excluded blacks and confined them to the dirtiest, poorest paying jobs.

While it's true that many whites and non-white immigrants came to America after the Civil War they were not subjected to the decades of relentless racial terror and legal segregation, as were blacks. Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial deviancy. The image of blacks as lazy, crime- and violence-prone, irresponsible, and sexual predators has stoked white fears and hostility and served as the standard rationale for more than 4,000 documented lynchings between 1890 and 1945, as well as the countless racial assaults and acts of hate crime violence.

Though some blacks earn more and live better than ever today, and have gotten boosts from welfare, social and education programs, civil rights legislation, and affirmative action programs, that does not mean that America has shaken the hideous legacy of slavery. The National Urban League in its annual State of Black America reports yearly continually finds that young blacks are far likelier than whites to be imprisoned, serve longer terms, and are more likely to receive the death penalty even when their crimes are similar.

Blacks continue to have the highest rates of poverty, infant mortality, violence victimization rates, and health care disparities than any other group in America. They are still more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods and be refused business and home loans. Their children are more likely to attend failed public schools than any other group, and more likely to be racially profiled on America's urban streets.
Also, there is nothing new about state and federal governments issuing apologies and payments for past wrongs committed against African-Americans. The U.S. government admitted it was legally liable in 1997 to pay the black survivors and family members of the two-decade long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930's by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs. The survivors got $10 million from the government and an apology from President Clinton. They were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government.

The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage that was tacitly condoned by some public officials and law enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and was duty bound to apologize and pay. The Oklahoma state legislature has agreed at least in principle that reparations and apology should be made to the survivors of the dozens of blacks killed, and the hundreds more that had their homes and businesses destroyed by white mobs with the complicity of law enforcement in the Tulsa massacre of 1921. There's even a bill by Michigan Congressman John Conyers that has been kicked around Congress since 1989 to establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and the feasibility of paying reparations to blacks.

The Conyer's bill will likely continue to be stillborn in Congress. Reparations is simply too risky, divisive, and distracting for Congress to seriously consider. Both presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain oppose reparations. Obama, however, has spoken vaguely about the need to spend more on education, job and housing programs as the best way to deal with the ills of the black poor. Virginia took a light stab at addressing the needs of the black poor. After it apologized for slavery, it created a scholarship fund for blacks whose schools were closed during the state's massive resistance campaign to integration from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s.

The brutal truth is that a mainstay of America's continuing racial divide is its harsh and continuing mistreatment of poor blacks. This can be directly traced to the persistent and pernicious legacy of slavery. The House's symbolic apology was a good thing, but it's just not enough.

Related Articles:

Congressional Hearing Held on Slavery Reparations Bill

Japanese PM's Apology For WWII Sex Slaves: What Next?

Blair Expresses 'Sorrow' for Slavery, Will Bush Follow Suit?

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